Monday, May 25, 2020

Troika Pamphlet Jam Reviews, Part 1

The Melsonian Arts Council is currently running a pamphlet adventure jam for Troika! over on Here's a link: I absolutely adore Troika and pamphlet adventures so thought I'd take a stab at reviewing every submission to the jam. I'm going to be posting short reviews in batches of 6, in submission order (from oldest to newest). After the conclusion of the jam and I've finished all my reviews, I'll post some summary thoughts and assign arbitrary awards to my favorites. I'll try to have fun with this, and I hope you do too.

You may ask, who is this man and what authority does he have to judge these works? I have fair familiarity with Troika, having both played and run dozens of sessions. You can read some of my Troika writings on this very blog. I wrote three (and am in the process of writing more) pamphlet adventures for Mothership, one of which is so far published. I am a pamphlet fan.

Game jam entries are made under time constraints and many of these pamphlets were released for free. My intention with these reviews is to provide fair and honest criticism and feedback for the works on their own merit, not evaluate them as commercial products. I will try to be as constructive as possible.

Here's some links to the other batches of reviews, updated as I post them:
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

Carnelian Riddle in the House of Indolent Blooms

What is there to be said about Micah Anderson's Carnelian Riddle in the House of Indolent Blooms? It's good. It's very good. It's beautiful to behold. It drips with dazzlingly imaginative ideas. It's more than worthy of the Troika compatibility Fortle. Players stumble through the fantastical and logic-twisting grounds and halls of the Carnelian Sphinx's Grand Observatory in desperate search of social faux-pas lest they be trapped there for 100 years. The author jam-packed this pamphlet to the point of bursting. It easily hosts enough material to run a short campaign, but the tiny text verges on the point of impracticality for the format. To praise all that's praiseworthy here demands far more space than these short reviews allow. There are riddles. Good ones. The NPCs delight. The rooms fill me with wonder. I almost wish I hadn't read it because I want to play it, badly. I'd buy a fancy printed version if one were made. You should too.

Suburban Cathedral

Suburban Cathedral by Sean F. Smith plunges adventurers into a subterranean mystery. Molemen imprison an earthquake generating creature in a monster infested cathedral beneath a fissure-ravaged town. For what purpose, the pamphlet doesn't say. Six intriguing creatures compose the meat of this scenario. I appreciated that the author provided a truncated (2 options) Mien selection for each rather than scrapping the mechanic entirely. Alas, there's little more here than the creatures and a d6 table of mostly setting-disconnected treasures. The pamphlet loses precious space to verbose, passive language, an unnecessarily large Troika compatibility logo, and a section of unhelpful notes on map-making. I'd have liked to see a public domain floor plan instead. The encounters procedure relies too heavily on monsters and misses opportunities to reinforce the earthquake-plagued subterranean setting: no cave-ins, no quakes. The mystery at the heart of Suburban Cathedral gets my imagination going, but the incomplete-feeling content of the scenario leaves me unsatisfied.

13 Story Bazaar

13 Story Bazaar by Jonathan Dersch tasks players with retrieving a magical flying vase from a rooftop antique store for their grandmother. 24 encounters laden with tomfoolery and danger complicate the climb through 13 floors of shops. A handful of encounters engage multiple floors or the tower as a whole: feuds between establishments, vehicles to traverse multiple floors. Most add threats or texture to a single floor. This scenario was originally written in 2019 for OSR systems and it shows. Bazaar lacks the color of a Troika adventure and too-often prefers the generic to the specific. Classifications of generic establishments, generic fantasy NPCs, and often-vanilla-feeling encounters cast a grey pall over the otherwise fun and dynamic premise. The scenario includes a separate pdf with Troika-compatible NPC stats and a single (charming) background that breathe some Troikian whimsey into the pamphlet, but not quite enough to sufficiently alter the tone.

Undeath of the Author

Undeath of the Author by Quinn B. Rodriguez is, as the author states, insufferably meta. I have little experience with and love for lyric games (of which I believe this is one), and therefore do not feel qualified to review this pamphlet on its own merits. As a Troika adventure, it is not.

The Milk Provider

The Milk Provider by Gustavo Tertoleone gleefully assaults the reader with neon colors and pop culture references. The rear blurb asks if I'm brave enough to enter the crazy unicorn's lair. I'm genuinely unsure. Said lair brims with madness: sentient LSD, a K-Pop band, candy people bursting from jelly pools.  The writing is verbose and often confusing but who cares, we're here to do acid and have fun. This is the perfect scenario to toss a bunch of your rowdy drunk friends into and together drown in its chaos.

Vast Marsh of the Snail-Holm

Vast Marsh of the Snail-Holm, another by Sean F. Smith, casts players into a plasma-storm-swept marsh in search of a magically imprisoned butcher's wife. This short hex crawl threatens players with natural beasts and pests. Giant frogs are as weird as things come out in the brackish pools and reed beds. The adventure relies on the path of the abovementioned plasma storm to sweep players from the most direct route and send them fleeing deep into the marsh, but the confusing language governing its movement and total lack of indication of its effects fails the GM. The adventure concludes with a solid 3-room dungeon inside a giant snail shell, though I wish I knew more about the being generating the storm than its stats. Should the players succeed in freeing the butcher's wife, she rewards the players with an opportunity to learn butchery skills--which I like. There's a nifty scenario here, but it's buried beneath a poorly explained central conceit and dull hex crawling encounters.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Anatomy of a TPK

I've been running a weekly Mothership campaign for a few months now. I string together a series of short scenarios (written by myself and others) in a loose campaign framework. PC mortality rate is high: averaging around 1 death/session. In our last session, my players TPK'd in spectacular fashion chasing down a bounty to her penthouse hideout.

The Scenario

"BLACK EYES" wanted for piracy of corporate assets. Bounty is armed and dangerous.

The Job

One (1) Azure Horizons Cryosuit™
  • Experimental, ambulating cryopod. Performs all functions of a hyperspace-maintenance android without the wasted space of a bulky, traditional cryopod.
  • Retrieval: 30kcr (pristine), 10kcr (functional)
One (1) Senior Azure Horizons Accounting Officer "Hector Rios"
  • Presumed still asleep inside the Cryosuit™. Corporate credit card recently used to purchase 2 months stay in Plaza Nouveau's penthouse suit, plus room service.
  • Retrieval: 5kcr (alive)
"Black Eyes" (aliases unknown)
  • Dead or alive: 10kcr
Unknown # collaborators
  • Dead or alive: 1kcr each

The Situation

  • High-rises surround the Plaza Nouveau hotel. Balconies separated by 20m.
    • Front door booby-trapped with a shotgun. Fires through the door if latch fully extended.
    • All shades drawn, windows locked.
  • Cryosuit hacked, protects Black Eyes and her crew.
    • Combat: 50   Instinct: 10   Hits: 3 (80)
    • Grapples hostiles, snaps limbs.
    • Rios visibly wounded if suit takes damage. Killed if suit takes 1 Hit.
    • Moves to provide Black Eyes cover, engages hostiles who approach in melee range.
  • Black Eyes & crew prepared for lethal engagement.
    • Combat: 40   Instinct: 30   Hits: 2 (20)
    • Black Eyes (SMG, grenades) on watch in the living room. 
    • Redd (revolver) using the south-east bathroom. Enters combat after 1 round. 
    • Klaus (shotgun) asleep in the north-east bedroom. Enters combat 1d5 rounds after Redd (if comrades killed first, ambushes PCs who enter his bedroom).
    • Willing to negotiate release of the suit and Rios: 100kcr wire transfer (company will not agree).

How it Went

My players were in deep shit with Azure Horizon's parent organization after murdering several of their employees to cover up the events of previous missions. In response, the company strong-armed the party into indentured servitude. They burned the party's contacts so the only available jobs were corporate issued. They slashed the pay of remaining jobs and squeezed the party with higher prices for company-owned goods and services. The party was already poor and deeply in debt (to the company) after purchasing a [haunted] ship. Mercenary salaries and docking, lodging, and fuel costs burned through what was left of their savings. They were desperate for a payday and took what they could get: this bounty job. After the price cuts, it paid only 10kcr.

On route to the hotel, the pilot attempted to save some fuel by cutting thruster use to a bare minimum on approach to the city's docks. He ended up crashing into a company-owned sensor array and racked up additional debt worth 7x the job's pay.

The party forwent any attempts to recon the penthouse. They planned to zipline down to the penthouse from an adjacent building and eschewed a potentially time intensive or pricey search for climbing harnesses in favor of a (critically failed) jury rigged solution.

They climbed a convenient fire escape and handed the rigging gun off to their NPC mercenary. 2 misses. The first shot hit low and needed reeling in. The second went through a penthouse window. Hastening to capitalize upon what element of surprise remained, the party ziplined down in the following order:

1. Potts, Teamster
2. Rabbitt, Marine (NPC mercenary)
3. Charlie, Marine
4. Brody, Teamster
5. Carver, Scientist

As a consequence of the critically failed jury rig roll, I randomly rolled for one of the crew's harnesses to fail mid-zip. Brody. As he fell, he quickly whipped his cowboy hat off his head and over the line in an attempt to save himself. Speed test at disadvantage or die: Success. He dropped his weapon in the process and rode his hat the rest of the way down.

The zipline inconveniently terminated in the middle of the penthouse's living room floor, meaning a painful slide through broken glass as characters struggled to free themselves from the poorly wrought harnesses.

The situation was bad.

Potts came in hot off the zipline and freed herself with the expertise only the creator of those terrible harnesses could possess. In the kitchen on the far side of the room, Black Eyes was ready for her. She stood behind the Cryosuit for cover, using its shoulder as a firing position. Potts fired her shotgun at Black Eyes and missed, instantly killing Rios inside the Cryosuit. Black Eyes returned fire, screaming "DIE MOTHERFUCKER", and shredding Potts's left arm (critical hit: bleeding out).

Potts ran for cover as Rabbitt shredded his back on the broken glass during entry. As Rabbitt got up and made his way to flank around the right side of the Cryosuit, one of the kidnappers (Redd) came out of the bathroom and shot him in the back of the head. 1 down.

Meanwhile, Potts gave up on shooting and rushed Black Eyes to club her with the back end of the shotgun. She missed: the Cryosuit's arm reached up and grabbed hers in a vice-like grip. Potts took some point-blank SMG fire and after failing to flip the shotgun up in the air and catch it by the grip, the Cryosuit broke her arm and she passed out. 2 down.

During Potts' ill-fated charge, Charlie touched down on the deck and engaged Redd with his SMG, who went for cover in the south-west bedroom. Brody arrived in the middle of the arm-breaking and sprinted across the room to tackle Black Eyes. He successfully pinned her against the heated stove top and they began a prolonged struggle for dominance. Carver critically failed their entry and knocked themselves out against the living room furniture. 3 down.

Aside: I majorly fucked up with Carver. It took way too long for them to get into combat (I should have sent in 2 PCs/turn instead of 1), and when they did arrive they immediately got knocked out and subsequently killed. I'm very anti-roll-fudging in general, but in this case I'd already kept them sidelined for way too long and should have picked a different critical hit result or skipped that roll entirely. Sorry Ryan!

Redd moved to flank Charlie by climbing out the bedroom window and crossing the southern "Green Roof" to get to the deck. She sprayed Charlie's position behind the couch with bullets but failed to do more than alert him to her presence. Charlie decided to break out the grenades and lobbed one out on the deck, obliterating Redd but also catching Carver in the blast radius. Even taking only half damage because of cover, Carver died in the blast (again, sorry Ryan!)

The final kidnapper, Klaus, roused himself from a mid-day nap and cocked his shotgun as he stepped into the living room. Brody concluded his struggle with Black Eyes by bashing her head in with a cast iron pan, then turned to catch a face-full of lead from Klaus's shotgun. 4 down. Charlie tossed another grenade in Klaus's direction but the Cryosuit snatched it out of the air and smothered the blast, destroying itself and decidedly murdering the barely-alive Potts.

Klaus walked through the wreckage and kicked over the sofa which Charlie had pulled over for cover, pumping his chest full of lead. Barely clinging to life, Charlie tossed one last grenade at Klaus's feet as he turned to search for survivors. With that, there were none.


Aside from my guilt about how I mishandled things with Carver, I had a lot of fun with this session. It felt exactly like the kind of massacre that results from shooting your way into a hostage situation without any intel. After facing and mostly surviving paranormal terror after paranormal terror, a few common criminals finally TPK'd this resilient party. After the session, I asked my players for feedback. Some players had a good time with the chaos. They may have died, but at least they took all those bastards with them. Carver's player politely expressed displeasure at being sidelined for the entire game, very understandably. Someone mentioned that it felt like a Tarantino film, which is precisely what I was going for.

Despite using no explicit horror tropes, this scenario dripped with tension. My players got in over their heads very quickly and they knew it. I was concerned that a mundane bounty mission might not hold water compared to supernatural scenarios, but it felt equally intense, terrifying, and Mothership.

My players and I decided to keep the campaign going with a new party. They expressed interest in taking over as the next owners of their spooky ship, which gives us a lot of leeway about who that party might be and under what circumstances they acquired the ship. I'm looking forward it.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Stumbling Through RPG Self-Publishing

In the past few months, I've stumbled my way through the process of developing and releasing a small, 2-page RPG scenario for the Mothership RPG. Though many other creators have come before me, it's been an exciting process and I thought others might be interested to hear some bits and pieces I've learned along the way.

Back in January, Dai Shugars posted a fun prompt for a Mothership scenario in a discord server I use. I elaborated on the prompt with a d10 table to use with the scenario, and left it at that. After some encouraging words about the table, I decided to flesh it out into a fully playable scenario. A month or so later and with Shugars' permission, I had a blog post I was pretty happy with. I posted it to the always-bustling Mothership discord server as well as r/rpg, where it was met with modest interest. As of right now that blog post, "Moonbase Blues", sits at about 600 views.

A few weeks went by, I continued to write blog posts and I started running the scenario for my regular Mothership playgroup. Out of the blue, I got a message from someone I'd seen hanging around the Mothership discord but had never spoken with, Warren Denning. Turns out he'd read Moonbase Blues and liked it so much that he laid out the scenario onto a professional-looking 1-page spread with maps to use in his home game. I was floored by the work and the compliment it represented. It made me feel like the blogging I'd been doing, which had heretofore received minor engagement, was all worth it.

Warren and I got to talking about what to do with the pdf. We both agreed that we should release it to the community, but weren't sure if we should try and sell it or put it out for free. We got in contact with Sean McCoy, the creator of Mothership, who began supplying us with a TON of excellent advice and support. I seriously cannot thank him enough for the help he's given us on this project. He encouraged us to sell the scenario for a similar price point to The Haunting of Ypsilon 14, an official 2-page one-shot scenario released for Mothership earlier this year. Because the free version of the scenario exists on my blog for anyone wanting to play it but without the inclination or financial ability to pay, Warren and I made the final decision to try and sell Moonbase.

With our decision to sell the product, we started working to polish up the material and expand the scope to fill both the front and back of a double-sided pamphlet. We added more content, tweaked and improved the layout, and made several editing passes. Meanwhile, we began to work on the logistical and marketing side of our project.

First, we had to decide where to put Moonbase Blues up for sale. DriveThruRPG is the largest online RPG marketplace, and other Mothership products have had a lot of success there. There's also, a marketplace primarily used for video games sales but with a burgeoning RPG scene. DriveThruRPG takes a 30% cut of pdf sales for products sold exclusively on their website, and a 35% cut for non-exclusive products. Furthermore, they require an 18-month wait time to switch a publisher account from exclusive to non-exclusive. takes 0%, with an option to donate a percentage of the creator's choice to maintain the site. DriveThruRPG also awards products with medals according to sales numbers and visibly promotes high-selling titles, pushing creators towards putting all eggs in their basket.

I reached out to Sean McCoy for advice, who shared that Mothership received roughly 80% of its sales on DriveThru and 20% on Itch. Doing some table napkin math, I applied those numbers and determined that one would keep 72% of a product's profits selling on both DriveThru and Itch, compared to 70% from going DriveThru-exclusive (assuming equal sales numbers). I also got in contact with Aaron Sturgill, the author of Vita Nova, a 3rd-party Mothership scenario that had been for sale on DriveThruRPG for several months. Aaron also graciously shared some of his sales experiences, and told me that Vita Nova had enjoyed very consistent sales on DriveThru since its release. With this information in hand, Warren and I weighed our options and came down on the side of a simultaneous Itch and DriveThru release. Though it seemed DriveThru was helping to promote its games and drive consistent sales, the numbers were close enough that we decided to err on the side of being less constrained in our future options.

Next, we tackled the hurdle of copyright. We wanted to protect our creation but avoid the relatively costly copyright registration fee (around $50, depending) on this very small project. Luckily, an attorney friend of mine shed some light on copyright law for us. From her advice and my own research, I learned that published works in the US automatically gain copyright protections upon creation, no registration required. Even a notice of copyright is optional, though we decided to post one on the pdf for thoroughness.

Now fully prepared with our completed files and all decisions made, we went to release our little scenario. I created pages on both DriveThruRPG and and went to hit the button to upload my files to the latter site when DriveThru notified me of an approval process that would take up to 5 days. I wasn't aware of this requirement, so had to postpone release plans.

On the following Monday, I got an email from DriveThru that Moonbase was not only approved, but automatically pushed live to their marketplace. If I'd wanted the option to choose when it went live, apparently I should have set a specific release day in the future. I scrambled to organize some marketing posts before I lost the benefit of DriveThru's algorithms for newly posted content. I posted links to both the DriveThru and Itch pages to the Mothership discord, my twitter account (which had only 15 or so followers), and to a few subreddits in the body of a longer text post explaining the story of its creation and linking play reports from Warren and I.

Sean McCoy and several other notable RPG people retweeted me, so my post managed to reach a decent number of people there. On the discord, Sean posted Moonbase to their "announcements" channel where it was much more visible. My posts to reddit did better than expected, receiving some attention on both r/mothershiprpg and r/osr but climbing almost to the top of r/rpg. The marketing effort felt like a reasonable success despite my minimal social media presence, largely due to help from others.

Within a few hours of my posts, Moonbase shot to the #1 spot on DriveThruRPG's "Most Popular Under $5" section, which is prominently visible on the site's front page. It stayed there at #1 for an entire week, and has only today dropped to position 3. I attribute many of my sales on DriveThru to this. On the first day of release, Itch accounted for approximately 1/4 of our sales, but that ratio soon trailed off as Itch sales dropped to almost nothing. DriveThru sales remained fairly consistent, tailing off but at a slower rate. We earned a Bronze Best Seller badge from DriveThru within the first 24 hours of our release and Silver a couple days later.

Itch sales have settled at around 15% of our total sales, not far off the 80/20 estimation shared by Sean. I feel good about our decision to go non-exclusive, mostly because it's given us flexibility while seemingly doing no harm to (or even slightly benefiting) our sales numbers. I think in the future, I might choose to only promote a DriveThru page for a new product now that I know the vital importance of hitting its front page (which would be impossible on Itch given competition with the much more popular video games on the site), even if I was posting to both DriveThru and Itch.

Despite our rookie mistakes and various unforeseen problems and challenges, this all worked out pretty well. Starting on a small, manageable project provided plenty of trial and error learning opportunities without setting the stakes and stress too highly. Warren and I haven't earned back anything close to minimum wage given the many hours we spent on the project, but we have a shiny silver medal and a lot more experience under our belts than we started with. Perhaps most importantly, I got to feel first hand the joys of collaborative community effort I'd only heard rumors about from the glory days of G+. My efforts to make some stuff and share it with other rpg people paid off and became something more than I could have envisioned.

If you're curious to check out the finished product, here's links to Moonbase Blue's DriveThruRPG page and page.

If you found this post useful or at least interesting, please let me know! Thanks for reading.